Is the Child Welfare System Beyond Repair?


NEW:  31 January 2015

The child welfare system in many first-world nations is stuffed: that’s the verdict of many of its sternest critics. Forget about tinkering around the edges of the system, they say. It would be far better to start again from scratch.

In Australia, life in residential ‘care’ remains as degrading and brutish as it was 100 years ago. In 2010, the Ombudsman in Victoria documented many alarming instances of criminal mistreatment of children currently in ‘care’.

Not only are children being placed with adults who have then engaged them in prostitution and other sexual acts. They are also subjected to monstrous violence – some had limbs broken and others had been knocked unconscious by residential ‘carers’. Some residents reported their ‘carers’ selling drugs to other children.  Read more.

In England, the UK Care Leavers Association says it hears the same stories over and over again from Care Leavers of all ages – and it has been ever so, down the ages:

  • a lack of stability in placements;
  • a lack of love and personal care;
  • an underdeveloped identity; and
  • a lack of support networks.

National director of the Association, David Graham, told the public accounts committee as part of their children in care inquiry:

“These personal experiences are mirrored by continued deficits, measured by outcomes on educational attainment, employment and health.”

In other words, the system is fatally flawed.  Read more.

In the US, the scandalous abuse of wards in residential care has once again created moral panic. The Tribune-Medill investigation led to the publication in the Chicago Tribune over the past two months of a series of more than 20 articles, three graphic essays, a comprehensive photo gallery, six graphics and four videos.

What they reveal is a national disgrace. For example, the investigation found a total of 5,500 police reports of run-aways or missing children from 130 facilities in 11 US States. Some of the absconders lasted only hours before they were caught and returned to the hellholes they were running away from. But many absconders were absent for weeks, or never found.

And plenty ran headfirst into life-changing tragedy – some were raped; others were recruited into violent gangs; some got started on a life of crime: they stole cars, broke into homes, got into drugs and/or prostitution as they struggled to survive on the streets with no money and few skills.  Read more.

What are they running away from?

One commentator put it this way: most wards are in residential care because they are emotionally burned out from multiple placements. They suffer from

  • attachment disorders;
  • depression;
  • feelings of self-abasement
  • a lack of education (multiple foster placements means multiple schools); and
  • anger — “lots of anger”.

Many who were placed in protective custody because of abuse and neglect at home flee the violence and abusiveness of the facilities.

One resident summed it up in a telling sentence: “They take us out of a bad situation and put us into an even worse situation.” He could have been speaking in any of a number of countries.

Many incarcerated young people are desperately trying to reconnect with their families, even if they were abused by someone in that family. They want to return to their communities, even if those were unsafe.

 Many simply reject the regimented, institutionalized life thrust upon them. They can see nothing to keep them there and have no hope for the future.

 Anglicare Australia (2014) interviewed young people moving out of ‘care’ and into independent living. Now aged 17 to 21, they were asked to reflect on their transition to independence. They talked about what they were up against.

  • You are disconnected from your family.
  • People stigmatise you and treat you as different.
  • They don’t expect us to finish school or go to university.
  • You can’t just be normal in ‘care’…So you don’t bother.
  • You learn not to get your hopes up.  Read more.

It strikes me that the sentiments of these young people in 2014 could have been written 20, 30, 50 years ago. I could have written them 60 years ago when I was in their position.

We keep on making the same mistakes. A damaged child turns into a damaged adult. Not only does the shocking treatment of kids in care have enduring negative effects on them into people for the rest of their adult life, society pays the greater cost of these consequences for decades to come.

The sheer weight of the disturbing evidence raises the question of why authorities can keep on getting it so wrong for so long.

In Australia, a Royal Commission has been alerted to 83 previous inquiries – an inquiry in Australia every second year in the 160 years since the 1850s. And almost nothing has been done to implement the many recommendations that these expert inquiries have put forward.  Read more.

Now the Commission has commissioned research into why these recommendations have not been implemented. Will an inquiry in the future ask the very same question?

Why is it going so wrong?

According to one writer in the Chicago Tribune series, the disgraceful situation continues not because of the bad faith of welfare managers or because of the incompetence of social workers. It continues because the entire child-welfare system was set up a century ago on a premise that no longer exists.

And he should know: Cook County Circuit Judge Patrick Murphy served as Cook County public guardian from 1978 to 2004. Not only that, but both his parents went through the child welfare system.  Read more.

The simplest way to improve residential care, Judge Murphy argues, is to limit the number of children placed there. That means limiting the movement that causes so much emotional distress for out-of-home children.

I paraphrase his recommendations:

  • Carefully match each child with the best available foster home. Work with each child to explain what is going on and what will go on in the future.
  • Limit the number of foster care agencies and make sure they are top quality. Give all foster parents much more intensive training and supervision than they now get.
  • Any time a child is moved, require the case be taken back to court for a hearing on why the move is necessary. This would force everybody to take a look at the child and what is going on in his life.
  • Make much better use of relatives who, in many cases, are the best people to provide care. They should receive financial assistance and other services to help with the child.
  • Make an all-out effort to get fathers involved. Dads, particularly of poor children, get a bad rap that frequently is not warranted.

Yet, isn’t there an elephant in the room?  The impact of extreme poverty on the child welfare system

Judge Murphy rightly points out that the overwhelming majority of children who have been abused and neglected have parents who from birth have led bleak lives without education, without a future. It’s intergenerational: those parents’ parents have led equally bleak lives. 

“If we really want to do something about the child welfare system, we must do something about the extreme poverty strangling our inner cities.”

Yet everywhere we look in cities in Australia, the UK, and USA, poverty is an intractable problem – and getting worse. Politicians rationalise their inaction with shallow platitudes about “leaners and lifters” and the undeserving poor – while cutting so-called “flab” from welfare systems and services to poor families.

What’s to be done? Comments very welcome.

A New Australian Knight


UPDATE 30 January 2015

Confusion Reigns:  who will do the honours for Sir Phil?

Apparently, Tony hasn’t yet told the Queen whether

  • she can dub her hubby personally,  or
  • Tony will do it,  or
  • it can be a Selfie.

A spokesman at Buckingham Palace says: “The Queen acts on the advice of the Australian government on any appointment to the Australian order, just as she would act on the advice of the UK government for any British knighthoods.

“We would direct you to the Australian government for further guidance on your below questions.”

Bookies have Tony 2/1 on, but the Selfie is firming fast coming in from 10/1 against to 6/4 overnight. Read More


Dear Sir Phil, our very own Australian Knight

I hope I am addressing you correctly. We are still getting used to the great news which just came through on Australia Day when everyone had spent far too long around their barbeques and were in no fit state to concentrate on matters of such great importance as this.

Perhaps it would be better to address you in the style to which you are more accustomed:

Your Royal Highness the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich, Knight of the Garter, Knight of the Thistle, Order of Merit, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, QSO Companion of The Queen’s Service Order, Privy Counsellor – and now: Knight of the Order of Australia.

Will that be enough? I wouldn’t want you to think we Lizards of Oz are ignorant of your other awards and honours like the Knighthoods from Denmark (the Order of the Elephant) and Greece (the Royal Order of the Phoenix). It’s sad to say that some of the lower classes still think it’s fun to address you behind your back as Phil the Greek, or even Fill the Greek. There should be a law that makes it an offence to lampoon Australian Royalty.

Some spiteful people say you were born a Prince of Greece and Denmark, but for my money, anyone who can be born a Prince anywhere – let alone in two countries simultaneously – deserves the little perks that come along with that achievement. You courageously gave up those Princehoods when you married our Queen, so it’s only fair that you got some compo.

But then you soon, effortlessly, became a star across the globe. We know about the Collar of the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest Mexican decoration foreigners can earn, and the Greek War Cross, not to mention the Italy Star.

We know too that you have had a brilliant academic career, earning top degrees from a number of universities. We’ve done our homework Down Under: you were once chancellor of the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Wales and Salford, and King’s College in the University of London made you a life governor. All class! They know merit when they see it.

We Australians were delighted that finally – and before you… (Like Tony, I dare not speak the word – even Down Under, we hear whispers about your health) Queen Liz will soon be tapping you on the shoulder to make you one of our own Knights. Not many men can say their wife made them a Knight! And Down Under, we rather like a wife to bend the knee occasionally, as I’m sure you do.

We were a bit worried at first that your wife would not accept our Tony’s recommendation that you become an Australian Knight. I think the thing that clinched it for her was that he consulted with the Head of our Australian Awards Council, who wholeheartedly gave the nod (clever man, Sir Angus – Tony gave him a Knighthood too at the same time.)

It could have been a close call if it had been left to the hoi polloi like other Cabinet Members in Canberra or, worse still, to the Parliament at large. But once they get used to it, they’ll come around. Already one Cabinet Minister has been found who says he supports his Captain’s Call. 

 And the ever-loyal Head of Australians for the Monarchy  has been on the television telling everyone about all that you’ve done for Australia, like doing the great honour of letting us name some scholarships after one of your titles. You can rely on old Flinty in a crisis. If you’re talking to your wife anytime soon, could you drop old Flinty’s name into the conversation. Fine stamp of a chap: remembers the 1950s as if it were yesterday!

You can ignore that Barnaby Joyce fellow, he’s not the real leader of the National Party (the way he carries on he’ll never get that appointment). Anyway, even he had to admit today that, “I don’t think the world is going to collapse around our ears because of this.”

Even if our Tony gets chucked out at the next election (and there have been some ungrateful mutterings even in Mr Murdoch’s press of late – and by the old man himself) you get to keep your Australian Knighthood. It’s yours for life. (I don’t mean to imply anything about your health, Your Royalty.) 

I’ll talk to Tony and see if he can make your Knighthood carry on down to young Charles sometime in the future, when it’s time, if you get my drift. I do beg Your Pardon for being a little familiar, but the Club has run an Open Bar tonight in your honour – and we know you will forgive us our little Night of Excitement (no pun intended). I know I should have said: The Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Graduate of Timbertop, and decidedly a Top Australian King in the Making.

 Just before I leave, Sir, Your Lordship, Prince, Duke, Your Highness, etc, I have a question. Won’t keep you up. A few of us at the Club tonight were asking: Now that Tony has made you a Sir, does that mean your wife is now a Dame?

 I remain

As ever

Your Very Humble Australian Servant

 I M Indless

Insurance Companies and Redress for Sexual Abuse


Further allegations of unethical actions by insurance companies in regard to child sexual abuse were aired by the BBC on 24 February 2015. More details here.


What is the role of insurance companies in dealing with allegations of sexual assault of children? Is it right and proper that they be involved at all?

The matter arises again in both Australia at the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse and in the UK where startling allegations of improper practices have been raised.

In the UK, Tim Hulbert, a retired head of social services in Bedfordshire, alleges that insurance companies tried to suppress information about child sex abuse in council care homes (The Telegraph (London) 14 January 2015).

Hulbert said he was instructed by the county council’s insurers not to admit liability or apologise to victims involved in a sex abuse investigation. He said he believed his experience had not been an isolated incident.

Mr Hulbert said: “Some insurers sought to suppress facts and justice for vulnerable young people in order to protect their own commercial interests. Put simply, out of greed. I find this approach immoral and obscene and I think it’s actually a part of the abuse that had been allowed to exist in this country.”

Hulbert declined to name the insurance company but said it was a household name and operated internationally.

Meanwhile, the Australian Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse is hearing a different perspective. Evidence has been put to the Commission that one of the major barriers to litigation by victims/survivors is the lack of assets held by church and other organisations. This can be remedied, it is claimed, by mandating all organisations dealing with children to insure themselves.

(An aside: the other side of the coin is the use of church property trust laws that make it almost impossible for churches to be sued.)

Is Insurance the answer?

The Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (Betrayal of Trust, 2013) found disturbing evidence of insurance company interference in the handling of claims. For example, in settlement negotiations under the Catholic Church’s Towards Healing policy – the so-called facilitation process – many claimants were shocked to find that the Catholic Church was represented not only by its lawyers but also by its insurers.

“Victims were not necessarily aware of an insurer’s involvement until they attended facilitation. Consequently, the exact nature of an insurer’s involvement was unknown to the victim until this point, or if the insurer organised a psychiatric assessment of the victim” (Betrayal of Trust, Vol. 2: 256).

The Parliamentary Inquiry found large discrepancies in the amounts paid to claimants depending on whether insurers were present in the process.

The average settlement was $32,817 when Catholic Church Insurances were known to be involved,  but $60,424  when they were not involved. (Betrayal of Trust, Vol. 2: 619.)

There are even wider discrepancies in payouts when the Church and claimants are both represented by lawyers as compared to payouts to claimants who are not represented by a lawyer. In many cases, the claimant has had to counter arguments put on behalf of the Church by both lawyers and insurers.

Putting the best face on it, insurance companies have an interest in contributing to the way organisations they insure effectively minimise and manage risk. They could advise on prevention strategies: child safe practices, staff selection and training, accountability and reporting measures, and the like.

However, the Victorian Parliamentary Committee commented that organisations that implement risk management processes only with the motivation of reducing their insurance premiums “ultimately prioritise their financial and legal concerns over their moral responsibility to protect children from criminal child abuseBetrayal of Trust, Vol. 2: 257).

Barnardos Australia is one agency with a clear position on the role of insurance companies: they should not be involved at all with the process of determining guilt or levels of compensation. (More)

Actuaries put out an alert to insurers

While the Royal Commission on child sexual abuse has no powers to award redress or compensation (but its recommendations are likely to go in that direction), actuaries are warning that its findings may result in churches, governments, charitable organisations – and their insurers – paying increased financial compensation and care and support costs to victims/survivors into the future.

According to Sharanjit Paddam, editor of Actuaries: The Magazine of the Actuaries Institute, October 2014, Issue 194, here) the Royal Commission could lead to substantial liabilities for insurers who have insured institutions in the last forty years.

This will, in part, be a result of heightened awareness of victims’ rights and a radical shift in the rules governing litigation and compensation schemes. The increases will apply not only to historical claims of abuse but to all future claims.

A more detailed paper on the issue was presented by Sharanjit Paddam to the Actuaries Institute General Insurance Seminar in Sydney in November 2014, (‘The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – Implications for Insurers’, here)

The message out of all this?

Churches and other institutions, increasingly being held to account for the crimes of their employees and their own dereliction of duty of care for vulnerable children, are beginning to worry about the financial pain they will suffer in the future.

Will this result in a net gain for victims and survivors – or will the lawyers and insurers simply get smarter on behalf of their clients, the churches and other institutions?